Man overboard: prevention and rescue
Don’t let the cry of “Man overboard!” send you into a panic. You can react swiftly and calmly by learning what to do if it happens, but your best option is to learn how to prevent it in the first place.
People fall overboard even during perfectly calm conditions. Those who aren’t in good physical shape may not withstand the shock of being tossed in the water. Wearing a life jacket could be critical to their survival.
How to prevent falling overboard
If you must be on deck during dangerous conditions, use a tether and jack line. While underway, do not allow passengers to stand in small boats or sit on foredecks, gunwales, engine boxes, seat backs or transoms. Bare feet have poor traction; wear deck-gripping shoes instead.
Keep your weight low and close to the centerline when moving around in a small boat. Equip your sailboat with through-bolted lifeline stanchions. In bad weather, have crew members wear harnesses and attach to jack lines when on deck. Watch crew members, and frequently check to ensure all hands are accounted for. Finding and recovering a man overboard can be difficult, especially in poor visibility or in rough water.
In the pre-departure briefing, make sure everyone aboard understands what to do in the event of a man overboard, from initial alarm call to recovery and aftercare. Practice man overboard retrieval under normal conditions in calm waters away from boat traffic. Your throwable flotation aid makes an excellent teaching aid to simulate a man overboard, allowing you to practice maneuvering your boat alongside and recovering the man overboard. Toss a life jacket over the side while moving to see how long it takes to stop the boat, turn and retrieve someone lost overboard.
In the event of a man overboard situation:
- Shout “Man overboard!” and make sure the helmsperson hears you. If available, press the “MOB” key on your GPS, which will guide you back to the location you were at when the key was pressed. Be sure the retrieval object you will toss into the water is tied to the boat.
- Assign someone to point at the person in the water and never let the victim out of sight.
- Stop the boat immediately; on a sailboat, drop the sails, and start the engine.
- To avoid running over the man overboard, approach against the wind and waves or current. Carefully come close aboard, or alongside, the person in the water. Shift into reverse to stop forward motion.
- Turn off the engine in gear to keep the propeller from turning; propellers can easily injure someone in the water. It’s safer to trail a life jacket on a line astern and circle the person in the water until the victim can grasp it.
- In a boat with low freeboard, bring a person aboard over the transom, but be alert to the presence of hot outboard motors, exhaust pipes and carbon monoxide. This recovery method can be dangerous during high seas, sending water into a low freeboard vessel, especially one with the stern pointed into the seas. Be aware that a pitching stern could slam down on someone in the water, especially from the overhanging aft section of some sailboats.
- In boats with high freeboard, use a swim platform or ladder to retrieve the man overboard. You could also rig a sling, rope ladder or knotted line. As a last resort, send a strong swimmer over the side to help a weak person in the water, ensuring that the swimmer wears a life jacket and has a safety line attached.
In a sailing vessel with no power, sail toward the wind when approaching the victim. If the boat has a centerboard or daggerboard, lower it all the way to stabilize the boat. In larger sailboats, try to pull the person onto a sail lowered into the water. Use the sail as a sling and roll the person into the boat. If you have one, a winch makes this task easier. You can purchase man overboard retrieval equipment that’s especially effective for sailboats.
Prepare for any crisis
Learn how to handle any emergency while underway by taking our Emergencies on Board webinar.